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Friday, November 22, 2013

A Memorable Shelving: The Maytrees and The Lowland

I know people that are very particular about their bookshelves, fanatically so. For those particularly bound to the stories they read, it can become a very heavy task – not just a stowing away – but a finding of refuge for something that once read becomes a part of your emotional memory and intellectual framework. How does one go about that?

Imagine a bookshelf where Homer rests heavily upon Kafka, or Franzen rubs bindings with Austen. Hempl stacked upon Palahniuk, supported by Descartes. How unsettling to find Shakespeare nestled amongst the Naturalists. Actually, Shakespeare might rest upon anything most comfortably. And then, there is Joyce and Stephen King pressed together, reticent.

Every time I go to put away a book I’ve finished, I too can understand the thirst for classification, a thoughtful tidiness. Thinking about unlikely pairings is quite fun actually. It allows for the birth of a compelling literary argument, to let certain stories lie down together. To what extent do the stories collide, or diverge so aggressively? We might even find that some would surprise us with their similar stories, a similar feel.

I read two books this past month in a fever dream of words. Perhaps because of time, but mostly because of their arresting language, setting, and similar themes they will forever resonate with me as pairing. Two books I could shelve together and rest assuredly at their placement, sounding the same as they roll off my tongue: Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees and Jhumpha Lahiri’s The Lowland.


The Maytrees was published in 2007 and is one of two fiction works by Dillard. It is slight in size, but full of what some have described as mysterious and arcane language and thoughtful, heavy themes on love and marriage. The Lowland was published this year (nominated for the National Book Award) and tells the multi-generational tale of two Indian brothers, born just a few minutes apart, but living separate existences in Calcutta and America. From any angle these may seem like two very different books, and don’t misunderstand that they are indeed, very different. But in their essence they are love stories (aren’t they all somehow?). They are love stories wrought from the bonds of brotherhood, marriage, and progeny – bound or broken by the common act of desertion. This desertion, whether decided by will or by some dire providence, alters the course of both narratives and we come to endure with those left behind. Their will for survival, the things that are done to understand or to harbor, and mostly the things that are done for the people that they love. Both stories follow the arch of the inevitable – change and aging and death – but what endues is the heaviest theme: love’s great cruelty is that it does not allow for forgetfulness.


A setting, the sea

Both stories are born in the lowest of lands, close to the flatness of the sea. The quiet, coastal aesthetic lends a balance to the tempo of the narratives, and yet at the heart of each story the tide measures out each coming sea change – a reminder that underneath quiet waters there are always movements we are not privy to.

The Maytrees is set in Provincetown: “what still seems antiquity’s surface…that exposed and mineral sandspit” – where Lou and Toby Maytree first fall in love – developing their own syncopated rhythm, learning to speak a delicate language at once their own. The sea is always a quiet third party within their marriage, a marking of intimacy and foretelling of storms, even until the very end: “here came sneaking the tide. Its raised rims caught star light that streaked along the beach like lighted eels.”

The Lowlands begins and ends near a flooded plain outside of a Calcutta neighborhood. But one of the brothers, Subash, relocates to Providence, Rhode Island for his PhD program. It is there that he becomes surrounded by the ocean: his oceanography campus overlooking the Narragansett Bay, a frequent visitor to the beach front under the Newport Bridge, and as compass to his surroundings: “Opening the door, he saw that the tide was in. The sky was bright, the ocean clam. No sign, apart from all the seaweed that had washed like empty nests up on the sand, of the storm there had been.”

Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea

An act, the desertion

Desertion is the common theme that pervades these novels. It's no matter really if desertion comes by decision or divinity. Do these differ so much to the one that’s left behind?

For Lou Maytree it is an undoing – an attempt at extricating something long embedded within her skin. A relearning, for newness always requires some sense of retreat: “She would have the rest of her life to pace lost ground.” And yet, when she and their son, Petie, are asked to reopen themselves it happens with such quick, innate understanding that one would imagine that nothing was ever lost at all.

For Subash in The Lowland it is an undertaking – an attempt at salvation through understanding. Some part of him made more whole by seeking the beloved assets of his fellow. Gauri was never his, nor was she meant to be. He is seemingly made whole by the arrival of his daughter, Bela, but even that alliance is a rickety assemblage.

For Gauri it is indoctrination – the only way that she can rectify herself against remembering. Throwing herself into philosophy – chasing time –and through it coming into a treaty with herself: “Guari’s mind had saved her. It has enabled her to stand upright. It had cleared a path for her.”

For Bela it is a betrayal – made ripe in her childhood and then again, as she faces the possibility of her own progeny, she is made privy to the evolution of her own lineage. One memory that she cannot forget, one that she will never know.


An end, memory remains

In the end, it is Lou and Udyan that we hear from; the deserters. It is not their fault that their narratives in absentia so greatly affect the tides of the rest. This is the way a love story so quickly brushes up against, and makes its bed with loss and separation. For nothing that is once given, can so easily be taken away. To forget: that kind of theft would be too merciful for something that was once so consuming. How easy to recall the figure of a departed spouse, to relive a childhood memory of brotherhood adventures, how simple to summon the profile of a mother you have tried to forget, how effortless to return to intimacy. Gestures are just the shadows of relearned memories that we will always be accustomed to; they will survive longer than anyone.


A shelving, a final note

I have tried to make the discussion of storyline vague in this reading so that you will be moved to read these beautiful books. Please do. Read them today, or tomorrow, or take all of next year. I will not forget the way they, together, consumed me. Above all, I walked away with a feeling: and a terrible, but tender perch from which to discern memory.
We are elastic, or so we long to be. Bound permanently to time, but so wiling to test the restrictions of that stretch: for love, for nostalgia, for our offspring, even for the brevity of a thrill. How helpless we must look against providence, but how we kick and scream and wail and curse and fight and moan and sweat against it. In the end, when we are less elastic or tired of the stretch itself, we will revel in memory like it’s sustenance, survival. It probably is. If not, pray for amnesia. 

Now, back to where to shelve these books...